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Small Ship Cruising: What to Expect

Hebridean Princess
Hebridean Princess

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When most people think of cruising it's usually the mega-ships that spring to mind, complete with waterparks, cinemas and shopping arcades, sailing the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. But if you prefer a more intimate seafaring experience closer to home there are a number small-ship cruise lines to choose from leaving from UK ports and offering cruises around the British Isles.

While you inevitably forgo facilities, there are numerous benefits with small ship cruises. Firstly, with a couple of hundred, or fewer, passengers onboard as opposed to thousands, it's much easier to get to know your fellow cruisers and there's more of a community feel onboard. Similarly, food quality is often superior as they are catering for so many fewer passengers. Plus, while the megaships are all about flashy facilities, small ships are all about personal service, enrichment lectures and overnight port stops.

So, if you're looking to discover your country without the hassle of flights, then there's sure to be a small ship cruise for you to choose.

Here are some of the best small ship cruises from the UK.

Updated August 29, 2018

Hebridean Island Cruises

Best for: Active luxury, the Scottish islands and solo cruisers

The Scotland-based Hebridean Princess, the only ship in the Hebridean Cruise Line fleet, carries just 50 passengers and 38 crew and is decorated in a similar way to a country house hotel. Onboard its welcoming and cosy and you'll get to know you're fellow passengers very quickly. Suffice to say, there is no swimming pool or a casino onboard. What it does offer is fine dining in the elegant Columba Restaurant, with gala dinners and cocktail receptions. There are also outdoor barbecues and fine picnics.

The line sails the Scottish highlands and islands, calling in at the Inner and Outer Hebrides, which offer incredibly diverse scenery from white sand beaches to volcanic landscapes; and the islands of the Clyde, where medieval castles, grand mansions and ancient ruins await exploration. Hebridean offers cruises from four to nine nights, and is the perfect choice for active adventurers who want to discover the lesser-travelled gems that Scotland has to offer -- in complete luxury.

Of the 30 cabins, 10 are for solo cruisers -- an unusually high proportion. Hebridean offers an all-inclusive experience with ultra personal service, including expert guides to enrich each port stop and excursion.

P&O Cruises

Best for: Traditionally British

Adonia, currently the smallest of the Southampton-based P&O Cruises fleet, carrying 710 passengers, is still available for cruises through to March 2018, before the ship leaves the fleet and transfers to Azamara.

Boasting a red-carpeted sweeping staircase into the grand atrium, a card room with panoramic views and wood-panelled library, the adult-only ship is aimed at mature passengers who like to cruise elegant comfort with an element of formality.

Despite its size, Adonia has a pool with hot tubs; spa, gym, shops, short running track and golf driving net. With five-course dinners in The Pacific main dining room, casual dining in The Conservatory and fee-paid fine dining at Sorrento's Italian and Ocean Grill by Marco Pierre White, you won't go hungry.

This is not a ship for partying the night away, but after a day of lectures, activities and excursions, followed by evenings of live music, comedy shows and dancing, most passengers are ready to retire early to their cosy cabins to make the most of the tea tray facilities (a rarity in cruise world).

The ship's final sailing for P&O is in the Caribbean -- a 28-night itinerary taking in 15 ports such as Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, St Marteen, Martinique, St. Kitts and St Lucia -- departing from Barbados on 26 January, 2018.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines

Best for: Variety and cruising on a budget

Black Watch Norwegian fjord cruise

Fred. Olsen's four ships -- Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch -- offer the full British experience in a friendly, semi-formal atmosphere. The line offers two- to 11-night cruises from UK ports, including Southampton, Liverpool, Glasgow and Dover, at budget-friendly prices.

The wide variety of interesting themed cruises for 2018 include the "Authentic Andalusia & Seville Orange Blossom" itinerary on Braemar, the "Tulips and Chocolates" sailing to Belgium and the Netherlands on Balmoral and the "Film Stars and Classic Cars" to the Cote d'Azur on Boudicca.

Life onboard is tailored to a mature crowd, with classes on gardening and wildlife, and card rooms, libraries and arts and crafts rooms across the ships, which range in size from the 804-passenger Black Watch to the 1,300-passenger Balmoral.


Best for: Luxury and ultra-attentive service

For the ultimate in cruising luxury, Silversea is hard to beat. It's not a British line, but it does offer seasonal British Isles' cruises.

In 2018, the line's Northern Europe and British Isles programme features the port-intensive London Tower Bridge to Dublin voyage on Silver Cloud, departing May 9, that takes in 14 calls in the UK and Ireland.

The ship only features outside cabins and passengers can sink into the whirlpool on the Pool Deck (while a staff member waits with a towel and the drink of your choice), take pampering up a level in the spa or kick back with a cigar and a fine cognac on a leather armchair in Connoisseur's Corner before evening entertainment. Fine dining venues include the al fresco Italian La Terrazza, relaxed seafood and steaks at the Pool Bar and Grill and exquisite French cuisine at Le Champagne.

As an ultra all-inclusive line (that means drinks, room service and gratuities too) Silversea offers a chance to sail in the lap of luxury -- and is priced accordingly.

Cruise & Maritime Voyages

Best for: Quiet relaxation

Pool Deck on Magellan

The ships are stylish and comfy, offering much of the same facilities across the fleet including a pool, card room, show lounge, spa and specialty restaurants. There's nothing ostentatious or flashy about the ships or the cruises themselves and that is reflected in the fares. There is an element of formality, including at least one formal night and captain's cocktail parties (on cruises of six nights or more), plus informal dining options. The ships are generally adult-only, offering limited sailings for kids during holidays.

Expect to take in charming towns, towering cathedrals, rugged coastlines and pretty harbours, before returning back to your cabin to dress for pre-dinner drinks in the piano lounge.

Saga Cruises

Best for: Over-50s

Saga has a two ship fleet consisting of Saga Pearl II and Saga Sapphire (with a third ship, Spirit of Discovery, launching in 2019). Saga caters exclusively to an over-50s crowd, so there are no children onboard at any time of year. The ships are beautifully designed, with quirky decor and thoughtfully-spaced rooms. Dining is superb, with an excellent pan-Asia eaterie on both ships: East to West.

Saga offers a number of short-break cruises from Portsmouth, which includes a stop in the beautiful Channel Island of Guernsey; as well as longer round-Britain cruises, including a week-long cruise departing Dover in August, 2018, and taking in the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

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